Saturday, May 12, 2007
What Turkey teaches about democracy
What Turkey teaches about democracy
By M K Bhadrakumar
Last Saturday night, Orange Blossom, the rising star of European dance music, gave an open-air concert in Istanbul, the city of heart's desires. The French band, which played a mix of European electro-beat, West African polyrhythm, haunting Arabic and Middle Eastern melodies and all-stops-out rock, underscored that it knew no borders.
Orange Blossom was on a European tour presenting its latest album, Everything must change. Turks were dazzled.
Only a few hours earlier the Turkish capital of Ankara had witnessed a historic public rally attended by anywhere up to half a million people from all walks of life. Like Orange Blossom, it, too, was "multicultural", comprising political forces of the left and right, including the ultra-right, nationalistic "Grey Wolves".
But, unlike the French band, it called for status quo in Turkish political life. The rally demanded that the borders of the Turkish state system and its unique political culture remain immutable and sacrosanct. Nothing must change. The rallyists chanted, "We do not want an imam in Cankaya [the presidential palace]." At times, they struck a strident anti-Western, anti-globalization tone, calling for a "national awakening".
They chanted, "Don't be silent, or you'll lose your homeland." They exhorted the nation to nip in the bud the possibility that the incumbent prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might be edging closer to announcing his candidacy for Turkey's forthcoming presidential election. Erdogan, they alleged, represented the "looming Islamic threat" to the secular state of Turkey.
Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) calmly reacted to the political affront. He complimented the rally for its peaceful nature, and appreciated that sections of Turkish opinion were "just using their democratic right". He could have contended that the bottom line in any functioning democracy lay in the will of a lawfully elected Parliament representing the collective aspirations of the Turkish people. But the Islamist leader decided that discretion was the better part of valor.
No sooner had the dust settled in Ankara than he flew to Berlin for a summit meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Erdogan was on a tough mission to try to resuscitate the moribund accession talks between Turkey and the European Union (whose rotating presidency currently lies with Germany). Erdogan made it very clear in Berlin that Turkey had no option but to be part of the European family, no matter how long its EU accession was delayed.
Kemal Mustafa "Ataturk" would have been pleased with the Islamist leader's tenacity in pressing the case for Turkey's destiny in Europe. On his return to Ankara on Wednesday, Erdogan proposes to meet some of the opposition political parties, chair a cabinet meeting, and then address the AKP's central decision-making executive committee regarding the party's candidate for the presidency. It is conceivable that Erdogan may be the AKP's candidate for the presidency. Or, a fallback could be that he might nominate a candidate from the AKP. Erdogan, in essence, will make his choice keeping in view the imperative of the AKP's cohesion as the country's largest political party.
The 85-year-old Turkish state finds itself at a crossroads. But the implications of Erdogan's final choice go far beyond Turkey's borders. Turkey's standing as a regional powerhouse, its strategic location as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, its historical and cultural heritage in the Muslim world - all these are bound to come into play in the coming months. Meanwhile, Turkey is working itself into a state of frenzy. Commenting on Saturday's rally, the establishment newspaper Turkish Daily News threatened that even if Erdogan was elected president, he wouldn't be allowed to govern in peace.
The daily posed in strident rhetoric, "It was vividly demonstrated [on Saturday] that the silent masses of this country did not want someone incompatible with the secularist principle of the republic in the presidential palace. It was underlined in all clarity that even if someone who does not necessarily represent the "full independence spirit" of the Kemalist doctrine; who may not defend adequately the "honor of the nation"; who rather than science considers theology as his guide; who rather than carrying Turkey to the level of advanced democracies aspires for the re-introduction of sheikhs, brotherhoods and the sharia order is elected as the president of this country, he will not be able to sit comfortably on the presidential seat."
In blunt terms, the daily warned the prime minister and the ruling party, "Having a majority in Parliament does not necessarily empower them to stage whatever they want in whatever fashion they want in this country ... if somehow because of the parliamentary conjecture, someone who is incompatible with the norms of a modern secular democratic republic is to become the new tenant of the presidential mansion ... Turks will gather again in Ankara and force a civilian transfer of the seat of the founder of modern Turkey to someone eligible for that position."
But, in fairness, not all Turkish commentators sounded so arrogant. Some have also pointed out that the self-styled "Kemalist" stance belies logic and fair play. They have pointed out that what passes currently as the current Kemalist contention is contrary to the democratic spirit, and asked how Turkey could consider itself a modern state unless democracy remained as sacrosanct as Turkey's secularist principles.
How, they asked, could democracy and secularism be separated from each other? They pointed a finger at the contradiction of the rallyists on Saturday maintaining an "anti-Western" stance while forgetting that the right of a woman not to wear a headscarf was a Western trait, and that the concepts of democracy and secularism that the rallyists claimed to uphold were essentially Western ideologies.
The present logjam in Turkish politics arises out of various factors. In the good old days, any semblance of an "Islamist awakening" in Turkey would have provided the excuse for a military takeover. But in present-day Turkey, an outright military coup is unthinkable. All that is possible is what the Turks themselves light-heartedly call a "post-modern coup". That is, an arrogation of power by the Kemalists in league with the country's establishment, riding a wave of Turkish nationalism.
Without doubt, Turkish nationalism has been on the ascendancy in the recent period on account of various factors - the EU's perceived snub of Turkey's claim to membership; war in neighboring Iraq and resultant regional instability; the deteriorating security situation in the east stemming from Kurdish militancy; and so on.
But at the same time, even though the ruling AKP is an Islamist party, it enjoys a substantial political base and commands an unassailable two-third parliamentary majority. The other political parties find themselves in varying degrees of disrepute and are lacking in credibility as a viable alternative to the AKP.
Besides, the AKP government has met with considerable success in stabilizing the country's economy by sustaining a steady high level of growth while keeping inflation under check. The economic policies have been generally responsive to the needs of different segments such as business, farmers, pensioners and government employees.
Above all, with the experience of running the government the AKP has also gained mastery to an extent over the working of Turkey's state system - its formidable bureaucracy, its enigmatic judiciary and its brawny security agencies.
It is natural that the Kemalists are beginning to harbor a sense of frustration that time is running out, and beyond a point, the genie of democratization in Turkey cannot be squeezed back into the bottle. All the same, an outright military coup being inconceivable, holding out the threat of extra-constitutional methods of political agitation is the only way out for the Kemalists in the emergent scenario - a variant of the phenomenon of "color revolution" endemic to the transition countries of the former Soviet Union.
But, unlike the case with Eurasia, the Kemalists in Turkey need to take note that the AKP government enjoys broad support from Washington. Of course, the Erdogan government's equations with the US can nosedive if Turkish military intervention against the Kurds in northern Iraq takes place. But, here, too, Erodgan has been careful so far not to walk into the Kemalist trap, while painstakingly deflecting the criticism that he is soft on Kurdish militancy.
The Kemalists are no doubt bracing for a showdown if Erdogan insists on himself or someone from his party claiming the presidency. It is not that Erdogan lacks the capacity to rally a million supporters of his own from all over the country on the streets of Ankara. He is a tough leader. He is a charismatic figure and has a huge popular following. But that is precisely the kind of confrontation that he has sought to avoid with the Kemalist establishment. During his years in power since 2002, he has kept a low profile and has avoided any clash with the powerful military.
There is much irony in the fact that it was the consistent decimation of a traditional left in Turkish political life by the country's establishment (through the instrument of ultra-right nationalist forces) in the Cold War setting that ultimately paved the way for the rise of political Islam. Thousands of leftist cadres were eliminated in brutal state-sponsored violence in the early 1970s.
The Islamists have striven to fill the resulting political vacuum that would have been a secular opposition's due claim. They have shrewdly exploited the discredit that the self-styled Kemalists have invited on themselves over recent decades through misgovernance, rampant corruption, cronyism and political arbitrariness. The Islamists have convinced popular opinion that they are a responsive, accountable, clean and efficient political alternative.
The paradox is that even though the emerging pattern of Islamic pluralistic politics is at variance with the West's brand of secular liberal democracy, the AKP has genuinely endeavored to advance social, economic and political reforms in Turkey in accordance with the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership. Looking back, there cannot be any two opinions that the AKP's years in power have seen a phenomenal transformation of Turkey as a country eligible for EU accession.
The country is hardly recognizable today in comparison with five years ago. The AKP ought to have received due acknowledgement from the EU for its sustained reform program aimed at strengthening the rule of law in the country. Arguably, Europe should have lent encouragement to the Turkish Islamist forces in their readiness to eschew apocalyptic strategies and instead resort to democratic politics and evolve as a centrist party. But for a variety for reasons, the EU is in no mood to "expand", and it will perforce have to go slow on Turkey's accession.
The move by Turkey's Islamists towards political participation has nothing to do with US President George W Bush's democracy project in the Middle East, either. Yet, in a curious way, it has everything to do with the democratization of the Middle East region as a whole.
Capitals such as Cairo, Amman and Riyadh will certainly watch with anxiety how their raging masses may draw the conclusion that Islamic democracy can be an alternative to Arab secular autocracy. More importantly, these Arab regimes will have cause to worry that as time passes, the West, especially the US, may begin to realize from the Turkish experience that, after all, the delicate equation between political Islam and a representative form of government doesn't have to be regarded as a zero-sum game.
Out of such a realization, a new paradigm of regime change in the Arab world may ensue. The autocratic rulers in the region will be uneasy that the Turkish experience further corroborates the reasonableness of the "historic compromise" with the Islamists in Morocco, and of the national unity government in Palestine.
The crucial importance of what is unfolding in Turkey lies in that, to quote former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami in a recent article, "Engaging political Islam will need to be the central part of any successful strategy for the Middle East. Instead of sticking to doomsday prophecies of categorical perspectives that prevent an understanding of the complex fabric of Islamic movements, the West needs to keep the pressure on the incumbent regimes to stop circumventing political reform."
Ben-Ami concluded, "The challenge is not to destroy Islamic movements, but how to turn them away from revolutionary to reformist politics by granting them legitimate political space."
Equally, political Islam is not a leviathan. It is amorphous and sort of "multicultural" - like Orange Blossom, which has Carlos Robles Arenas on drums and sampler, vocalist Leila Bounous, Pierre-Jean Chabot on violin and percussionist Mathias Vaguenez.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
'A bullet at the heart of democracy'
By Dilip Hiro
Recently, Turkey came close to experiencing a soft military coup. Late last month, faced with the prospect of the moderate Islamist Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul becoming president, the country's top generals threatened to overthrow the elected government under the guise of protecting "secularism".
When the minority secularist parliamentarians boycotted the poll for president, the Constitutional Court, powerfully influenced by the military's threat, invalidated Parliament's vote for Gul on the technical grounds that it lacked a two-thirds quorum - something that had never been an issue before.
This demonstrated vividly that secularists are not invariably the good guys engaged in a struggle with the irredeemably bad guys from the Islamic camp. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP) called the court's verdict "a bullet fired at the heart of democracy". Other critics pointed out that earlier presidents had been elected without the presence of two-thirds of the 550-member Parliament.
Here was an example of the complex interplay between secularism and Islam in a Muslim country. The Turkish secular elite, fearing a further loss of power, raised the cry of "Secularism in danger!" and got their way - for now - even though a recent poll showed that only 22% of Turks agreed with this assessment.
During its nearly five years in office, the AKP government, led by the charismatic, incorruptible Erdogan, has kept religion separate from its politics - the sort of behavior the US system used to emphasize - while expanding democratic, human, and minority (that is, Kurdish) rights through the most thorough overhaul of Turkish laws in recent memory. The AKP has also been vigorously pursuing Turkey's full membership in the European Union.
"The primary reason behind the intervention of the secular establishment was not the fear that Turkey would become Islamic," Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States' Ankara Office, noted in an International Herald Tribune op-ed. "Their fear was that the democratization drive, led in part by hopes of entering the European Union, will erode their power."
The present confrontation between the AKP and the secularist establishment, with the military at its core (originating with the founding of the Republic in 1923), is rooted as much in political power and class differences as it is in Islam.
On one side is an affluent, university-educated, Westernized elite, popularly known as "the White Turks", which dominates the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the Education Ministry; on the other, a coalition of the urban underclass and a rising group of prospering entrepreneurs from (Asian) Anatolia, which covers 97% of Turkey. Both groups are devoutly Muslim and socially conservative. Both have come to value democratic rights and governance.
Torn from landlords, hooked to pious politicians
The urban underprivileged and the energetic entrepreneurs have, in fact, been the primary beneficiaries of the Erdogan administration's adroit management of the economy, which has expanded by an annual average of 7% for five years. During that period, per capita income has, astoundingly, almost doubled, to US$5,500. And foreign investment since 2003 has soared to an unprecedented $50 billion.
The alliance of these classes has occurred against the background of a multifaceted socio-economic change: the fast-diminishing size of the Turkish peasantry as villagers abandon agriculture for better-paying jobs in urban centers; a staggering rise in the literacy rate to more than 90%; and the gradual loss of the traditional working and lower middle classes.
Ever since the prosperous mid-1980s, an increasing number of Turks have benefited from an unprecedented extension of access to information. They have also gained personal mobility through car ownership. Television, telephones and cars have become part of everyday life for many Turks. Collectively, they have helped the previously underprivileged to think for themselves.
This is particularly true of the rural migrants into cities such as Istanbul, the capital Ankara, and Konya, which together account for a quarter of the national population of 71 million. In an unfamiliar, impersonal urban environment, they have found their moral and ethical moorings in Islam. And they seek solace in the mosque and a caring political institution such as the Justice and Development Party and its two antecedents - the Islamist Welfare and the Virtue parties.
Over time, they have also come to realize the power of the ballot - how the principle of one-person one-vote, if applied fully, can help to right socio-economic wrongs. It was their backing that initially placed the Welfare Party in the town halls, inter alia, of Istanbul, Ankara and Konya, and then transformed it into the largest single party in Parliament in late 1995 under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan.
Unlike their counterparts in the secular camp, Welfare Party leaders, who derived their moral and ethical values from Islam, were not corrupt. This mattered a lot to voters, growing increasingly disenchanted with the corruption and factiousness of secular politicians
Breaking with past party practices, Welfare Party leaders set up social networks at the grassroots. Their regular attendance at local mosques - popular with traditionally pious rural migrants as well as local traders and artisans - helped strengthen the networks. The success of such a strategy can be judged by the fact that two-thirds of 2.5 million first-time voters favored the AKP in the November 2002 general election, when the year-old party won 363 seats.
By contrast, such secular factions as the Republican People's Party (RPP) - whose boycott of the presidential poll in late April made the Parliament inquorate - are stuck in the old, elitist mode of politics. "You talk to the AKP people and they try to persuade you," remarked Ali Caroglu, a political-science professor in Istanbul. "But the RPP is very judgmental. They don't want to talk to the people they don't approve of."
On being elected mayors in the early 1990s, Welfare leaders drastically reduced corruption in town halls and delivered municipal services efficiently. As Istanbul's mayor, Erdogan was instrumental in furnishing the metropolis with a sorely needed subway system and tramway, as well as providing bread at a subsidized price to residents.
The difference wrought by the Islamist parties was summed up aptly by Omar Karatas, leader of the AKP's youth section in Istanbul. "Before, the state was up here and the people down there," he said. "Now, there's a harmonization between these two groups."
A tortuous road to democratic power
The road to "harmony" has, however, been tortuous. The progenitor of the Islamic factions was the National Salvation Party (NSP), formed by Necmettin Erbakan in 1972, which propagated pristine Islamic ideas brazenly. It was dissolved, along with other political parties, after a military coup in 1980.
With the introduction of a new constitution in 1983, political life slowly revived. The pre-coup NSP re-emerged as the Welfare Party under Erbakan. In mid-1996, as leader of the senior partner in a coalition, he became the prime minister. (His cabinet included Abdullah Gul, the AKP's presidential candidate in the recent crisis.)
Within a decade of its founding, the transformation of the Welfare Party - treated as a pariah by the White Turks - into the senior constituent of a governing coalition was a symptom of democracy striking firm roots in Turkey. It invalidated the view - held by most Western commentators - that democracy and political Islam are incompatible. In Turkey, it was the secular elite, backing military coups against Islamists, that failed the test of democracy.
Five senior generals tried to forestall Erbakan's premiership. In early 1996, as he was trying to form a coalition government, defense sources leaked the contents of a secret military-cooperation agreement Turkey had signed with Israel a decade earlier. The generals figured that such a revelation would so embarrass Erbakan, and alienate him from his Islamist base, that he would abandon his prime-ministerial ambitions. But to their chagrin, he persisted.
As it had done in 1960, 1971 and 1980, the military hierarchy seriously considered staging a coup. Yet it could not overlook the drastically changed international scene after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In earlier years, in the midst of the Cold War, Washington had looked the other way when the Turkish generals sent tanks into city squares and arrested all politicians. Now, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the verge of opening its doors to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the US administration of president Bill Clinton was emphasizing the importance of civilian control over the armed forces to their leaders. A coup by the Turkish generals in such circumstances would have made a mockery of this freshly stressed NATO principle.
To leave nothing to chance, however, after several private warnings to the Turkish generals, Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright publicly urged them "not to exceed the armed forces' authority within the democratic system". (In the current crisis, an equivalent role was played by Olli Rehn, the EU's commissioner for enlargement, who warned the military to stop meddling in the presidential poll. Were the generals to seize power in Ankara, he indicated, it would destroy Turkey's chance of becoming an EU member.)
Instead, the Turkish generals orchestrated a war of attrition against Erbakan by briefing the judiciary, the media, and business people on the evils of Islamic fundamentalism, while pursuing their own regional foreign policy centered on forging a military alliance with Israel. The generals' offensive came on the heels of high inflation and unemployment as well as a chronic Kurdish insurgency that Erbakan had inherited. He resigned in June 1997.
Thus the generals achieved their aim by mounting a "soft" coup, a novel strategy.
Seven months later, the Constitutional Court banned Erbakan's party and barred him from public life. Yet Islamists remained a political force committed to parliamentary democracy. Erbakan managed to play an important role in creating the Virtue Party, which emerged as the main opposition party in the 1999 general election. Not for long, though.
In June 2001, the Constitutional Court outlawed the Virtue Party, describing it as "a focal point of anti-secular activities" - which meant being at the center of protests against a ban on the wearing of women's headscarves in government offices and educational institutions.
Over the past decade, the battle between secularists and Islamists has become focused on the symbolic politics surrounding the headscarf, which almost invariably is worn in public together with a long coat. The two garments constitute modest dress for women according to pious Muslims. In Islam, the importance of women donning such dress is attributed to a verse in the Koran that enjoins believing women to "cast their veils over their bosoms, and reveal not their adornment (zinah), except to their husbands" and other blood-related males, as well as female relatives, and children.
In 1998, the Turkish authorities extended the headscarf ban to universities. Protests in response lasted two years. The issue reached a fever pitch in May 1999 when Merve Kavakci - a US-trained computer engineer and newly elected Virtue Party member of Parliament, holding a dual nationality - appeared there in a headscarf.
She argued that nothing in the statute books barred her from doing so. When it was discovered that she had not secured permission from the authorities to contest a parliamentary seat - as someone with a dual nationality is required to do - she was quickly deprived of her Turkish citizenship.
Her case illustrates the difference between secularism as practiced in Turkey and in the United States. The US version guarantees individual religious rights, whereas the Turkish version invests the state with the power to suppress religious practices in any way it wishes.
With the general election due on July 22, secularists are trying to push the headscarf issue to the top of their campaign. It is easier and more effective for them to stress that Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, wears a headscarf than to remind the public that he was a member of Islamist Erbakan's government a decade earlier.
"People think that if the first lady wears a headscarf, then many things will change, threatening the whole secular system, forcing all women to wear headscarves," said Nilufer Naril, a sociology professor in Istanbul. She seemed oblivious to the finding of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation that nearly two-thirds of women in Turkey already wear a headscarf.
By contrast, the AKP is set to contest the upcoming election on its record of providing a strong, incorrupt government that has produced impressive economic growth and implemented political reform. In desperation, leaders of the RPP, the only secular group represented in Parliament, has decided to coalesce with a smaller secularist faction to mount a strong challenge to the formidable AKP.
As yet, though, neither secularist party is showing any sign of abandoning its present strategy of building its program around its distrust of the AKP and Erdogan. But then, negative thinking seems to have inspired the early proponents of secularism in Turkey too.
"Influenced by the European anti-religious movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Turkish secularist elite views religion as a pre-modern myth, one that must be extinguished for modernity to blossom," noted Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Turkish Daily News. "The outcome of this mindset is an authoritarian strategy: political power is to remain in the hands of the secularist elite. Thus the 'secular republic' equals the 'republic of seculars' - not the republic of all citizens."
Little wonder that secular fundamentalists in Turkey get along famously with the military.
Dilip Hiro is the author of many books on the Middle East and Central Asia. His most recent book is Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources (Nation Books).
(Copyright 2007 Dilip Hiro.)
The week that transformed Turkey
By M K Bhadrakumar
Three developments within a week, and the visage of Turkish politics has changed beyond recognition: the military's warning to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last Friday against pressing ahead with its candidate for the presidency because of his Islamist leanings; the constitutional court's ruling on Tuesday that invalidated the first round of voting by Parliament last week in which the AKP candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, fell just short of the required two-thirds support; and the AKP leadership's subsequent announcement that it will dissolve
Parliament and stage early elections.
Turkish politics is entering uncharted waters. No precedent from Turkey's troubled experience with democracy quite holds good as a compass for the protagonists. That includes the country's armed forces, the main political parties, and civil society.
Equally, it is a gross oversimplification to view the developing crisis as a two-way standoff between "secularists" and "Islamists". The political spectrum is far too diversified.
And what lends an altogether new dimension to the crisis is that there is undeniably an international angle, which cannot be overlooked against the backdrop of the highly volatile regional situation in the Muslim Middle East.
Above all, there is no cut-and-dried solution to the crisis in view. In all probability, the various contending forces have to play out over the next few months and, in the meanwhile, a prolonged period of political tension and uncertainty lies in store.
What is unmistakably clear is that the Turkish military has once again put breaks on the country's democratic experiment. It is natural that suspicions have arisen that the country's judiciary might have once again come under pressure to become the handmaiden of the "pashas" (a title used for military and civil officers) in subverting the democratic process.
Suspended between the autocratic Middle East and democratic Europe, Turkey is once again being dragged into the morass of a crisis of identity. Where does Turkey belong? Last week, it certainly bore a resemblance to its Middle Eastern neighbors to the east rather than Vienna to the west (which the Ottomans strove to enter centuries ago by force but failed).
The only glimmer of light on a bleak political horizon is that it is still possible that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will succeed in salvaging something substantial out of the debris that the military's heavy boots have created. In this case, Turkish democracy may live to fight another day and founding father Mustafa "Ataturk" Kemal's dream of taking a modern Turkish state into the common European home may be realized.
Erdogan's announcement on Tuesday that, given the circumstances, he was seeking a way out of the political deadlock by opting for early parliamentary elections, might seem at first glance as a sign of backtracking under pressure from the military, but there are undercurrents that must be noted.
Erdogan is a born fighter, and at the same time he is a pragmatist and a master tactician. He has, in essence, taken two steps forward and one step backward. For the first time in the 85-year history of the Turkish republic, a political party has shown the gumption to reject the military's claim to the role of political arbiter. The AKP government has stood its ground and has reminded the military of its place under the constitution. Three cheers for Turkish democracy on a dark day.
Second, Erdogan has refused to give up the AKP's claim that like any other political party in the country, it must have the prerogative to put forward its own candidate for the presidency and that it must be left to Parliament to sit in judgment. Therefore, Erdogan is sticking to Gul's candidacy. He has also refused to be browbeaten by the massive Kemalist rallies on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul in recent weeks condemning the AKP as "neo-Islamists" allegedly bent on undermining the secular foundations of the Turkish state.
At the same time, Erdogan is avoiding an outright confrontation with the military. His readiness to break the political deadlock after the constitutional court annulled the first round of voting seems on the surface to be eminently reasonable. Also, he met with the military leadership before announcing the decision on Tuesday evening to call early parliamentary polls in July rather than scheduled November.
But he has stressed that he will advocate sweeping changes to the country's constitution, which would involve a direct presidential election along with parliamentary polls. "If this Parliament cannot elect the president, we will take the issue to the nation and begin electing the president by popular vote," he warned. In other words, he finds it completely unacceptable that the military can arrogate to itself any right to supersede the popular will of the nation.
With this stance Erdogan is occupying the center stage of the country's democratic life. He is setting an agenda that is at once populist but that many other political parties will find hard to match. In fact, the issue is bound to prove divisive, and can only help further isolate the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which is already being seen as goading the military into helping it.
Finally, Erdogan is also signaling the AKP's democratic credentials to the international community, especially to Western capitals. On balance, Erdogan's best bet is that the opposition parties remain in their present state of disarray and far from united in taking on the AKP in the parliamentary elections in July. CHP leader Deniz Baykal is a controversial personality with whom leaders of other political parties have found it difficult to work. There has been a steady exodus over the years from the CHP by prominent politicians whose main grouse has been with Baykal.
The Kemalist dilemma
As long as Baykal retains the leadership of CHP, therefore, the prospect of genuine unity among the leftist political parties seems remote. There is no charismatic leader who can unite the fragmented spectrum of Turkey's political left. That is to say, the Kemalist camp will lack an effective political vehicle during the polls. This explains the attempt of the Kemalist camp in recent weeks to win back in the streets what it knows it has no chance of gaining through the ballot box.
Turkey's peculiar electoral laws will ensure that political parties that poll less than 10% of the votes do not find representation in Parliament. This stipulation was, ironically, cleverly crafted by the Kemalist forces in the past for the express purpose of denying Kurdish irredentist elements the avenue of the democratic process to take their political platform into Parliament. Thus the badly fragmented Turkish left may not gain any added representation in the new Parliament. Indeed, Parliament's composition may not be far different from what it is now.
If anything, some of the rightist political parties that were excluded in the last Parliament might now cross the 10% threshold. There is no denying that the AKP has been a successful, reforming government. It has built an impressive track record in terms of the democratization agenda, economic stability and foreign policy. The probability is therefore high that the AKP will return to power with a new mandate. Where does that leave the Kemalists and the military?
The Turkish "pashas" are unused to being dictated to by popular opinion. The Kemalists are unlikely to abdicate from the political
scene even if they get a drubbing in the elections. In other words, the present standoff has the potential to turn into a prolonged crisis, even with early polls. In any other democratic country, elections should be the occasion for establishing fresh ground rules, but Turkey is unique in this regard.
At the heart of the matter lies a twofold question. On the one hand, how will the Turkish military "persuade" the AKP leadership to give up its legitimate aspiration to field a candidate for the country's presidency and instead settle for a "consensus" candidate acceptable to the Kemalists, no matter the AKP's parliamentary clout? On the other hand, how realistic will be Erdogan's expectation that, invigorated by a fresh popular mandate, the AKP will be able to get the military to accept the supremacy of the democratically elected government and its authority?
Clearly, the military's claim that it is the "absolute" guardian of the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal is untenable under present international democratic norms. Such a claim is certainly incompatible with Turkey's bid for membership of the European Union. The military is nonetheless pressing its claim, backed by the threat of a "soft" coup against an elected government.
As the London Financial Times commented editorially, "The thesis that the AKP government headed by Erdogan is intent on installing theocracy by stealth does not really stand up. Erdogan's party combines the deeply conservative and religiously observant traditions of Anatolia with a huge constituency in Turkey's modern but Muslim middle class. It was created from the debris of failed Islamist movements in order to supersede them; a rough analogy would be the way the Christian Democrats emerged as modern parties of the center right in much of Europe."
Turkish opinion remains democratic
It is already clear that regardless of Turks' political ideologies, public opinion itself disfavors the rude attempt by the military to play a role in the present crisis, let alone implicitly to threaten an outright military coup. Even Ilter Turkmen, political columnist of the establishment daily Hurriyet, wrote, "The general staff would have done better to voice its concerns behind closed doors" when the AKP leadership first announced Gul's candidacy. Turkmen pointed out that "it's always difficult to settle a conflict which has gone public".
The influential Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association has called for restraint and "common sense" in overcoming the political deadlock. It said early parliamentary elections are needed so that the democratic fabric of society is not impaired. The Turkish mass media have been largely critical of the military's statement last Friday. The political parties of the right have also taken a stance supportive of the democratic process. Summing up, seasoned observer Cengiz Candar commented, "The military is seeing the option of a coup more and more unpopular."
Significantly, even the impressive public rally by "secularists" in Istanbul last weekend, which is estimated to have drawn more than half a million people, distanced itself from identifying with the military's intrusion into the democratic space. The rallyists chanted slogans favoring the strengthening of democratic institutions as much as preserving Turkey's secular traditions. To quote the liberal daily Milliyet, "In Turkey today, there are not only Kemalists but also liberal, socialist, conservative and social-democratic intellectuals ... In such a diversified and developed country, the thinking that secularism will be lost is a totally irrational scare tactic."
Nonetheless, the daily advised in a note of political realism, the government should take certain steps to dispel tensions and such scare tactics. "The AKP should be more open to the center ... Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who obviously deserves to be president, should win the office by being elected ... The official ideology and the Kemalists should know that modernization inevitably creates social diversity ... The way to strengthen such vital, basic values as national unity and the unitary state is to strengthen the spirit of tolerance and co-existence."
Looking at the paradigm in a slightly different way, it is evident that a sort of class conflict lies at the root of the fear and uncertainties that the AKP "provokes" among large sections of the Turkish urban secular elites. In a way, the underlying fear on the part of the motley crowd of self-styled Kemalists is that the liberal, "Westernized" lifestyle of Turkey's urban elites is coming under pressure.
This is due to the steady migration of deeply conservative people from the Anatolian heartland to the major cities that has been taking place over recent years. The migrants bring their traditional way of life as observant Muslims into the urban centers. The two sides harbor deep suspicions bordering on mutual antipathy.
The Turkish military's resolve to wade brazenly into the political scene has generated a lot of criticism in European capitals as well. The secretary general of the Council of Europe (of which Turkey is a member), Terry Davis, expressed "shock" at the military's statement on Friday. "They [Turkish military] should stay in their barracks and keep out of politics," he said. More significant, the European Commission's chief spokesman, while acknowledging that democratic secularism was of high importance to the EU, said in a statement that democratic institutions and the rule of law should be allowed to have primacy.
Certainly, Turkey's democratic credentials will come under scrutiny in the coming weeks and months, and that is bound to impact on the further progress of Turkey's EU accession negotiations, which are already under pressure. But the impact will be felt in much more immediate terms on Turkey's highly volatile regional environment, especially the situation in Iraq.
As the campaign for parliamentary elections gets under way, there will always be the risk that nationalist sentiments are whipped up. The situation in northern Iraq and the threat posed by Kurdish militancy to Turkey's security and integrity readily become the stuff of grandstanding by politicians who intend to ride the wave of nationalism. These compulsions of domestic politics in turn will significantly diminish Turkey's ability to play an effective role in the stabilization of the Iraq situation.
Besides the United States, Iran and Syria will also have reason to be worried that as the regional situation is poised to enter a qualitatively new level of intensity, Turkey is getting bogged down in a prolonged period of domestic commotion. Even Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon will keenly watch how high the bar of democracy is going to be set for the forces of Islamism to operate legitimately in Turkey's political arena.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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Posted by lmurx at 10:21 AM